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DeLaveaga Fire

Started: 2022-08-12 23:48:37

Submitted: 2022-08-13 01:39:19

Visibility: World-readable

Watching an air assault on a small wildfire, too close for comfort

Just after lunch today, when Kiesa was about to leave the house to go on a walk around the neighborhood before returning to work, she smelled smoke. I stepped outside to investigate and spotted smoke rising from the heavily-wooded hillside immediately opposite us on the other side of a narrow valley.

Smoke rises over DeLaveaga Park
Smoke rises over DeLaveaga Park

A quick Twitter search indicated the fire had started near the DeLaveaga golf course on the top of the hill, so it was called the DeLaveaga Fire. The fire had started sometime after noon, and fire crews were on their way. There was a light breeze blowing the smoke in our direction; it smelled like camp fire. As I stood on the deck watching the smoke billow over the fire, flaky white ash the size of a flat pencil eraser fell like soft snow on the deck.

While we stood there watching the smoke, I wondered how worried I ought to be about the fire. We live on the edge of Santa Cruz, in the Carbonerra Estates neighborhood, officially inside the city limits of Santa Cruz but sprawled on a hillside tucked in the foothills above the city. Even though we're in a subdivided culdesac, we're right in the middle of the wildland-urban interface: there are more than enough trees and vegetation, and the trees and houses are packed close enough together, that our house is at risk from wildfire. I expect that our house will be threatened by wildfire and we will be required to evacuate at least once while we live here. We have a plan for what to do in the event of an evacuation, but the plan does not really address what to do if we see smoke and think that maybe we might need to think about evacuating depending how the fire goes.

The weather, at least, was on our side. The day's forecast was a high of 82, with a breeze up to 6 mph. This was enough to blow the smoke in our direction (and to trigger a small but noticeable bump in my Purple Air air quality sensor, peaking briefly at an AQI of 130), but not really enough to whip the fire into a meaningful conflagration.

I tried to get back to my regular daily schedule and returned to work on the mid-day dishes until I heard the distinctive bass throbbing of a helicopter approaching. I ran upstairs with my camera in time to see a Calfire UH-1H "Super Huey" arrive at the fire. (Flight tracking data suggests it's based at the Alma helitack base on highway 17 at Lexington Reservoir.) The helicopter made a couple of circles around the fire, then it disappeared behind the trees, presumably to land at the golf course.

N495DF Calfire Bell EH-1H arrives at the DeLaveaga Fire
N495DF Calfire Bell EH-1H arrives at the DeLaveaga Fire

The Super Huey reappeared after a couple of minutes trailing a snorkel and flew off to the south-west, presumably to find the nearest source of open water. (Flight tracking data, plus reports on Twitter, tell me that the helicopter picked up water from the San Lorenzo Lagoon, in the longest flattest section of the lagoon before it passes under the pedestrian bridge and rail bridge before stopping at Main Beach next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a section of water circumscribed by my standard morning running route.)

N495DF over the DeLaveaga Fire
N495DF over the DeLaveaga Fire

The helicopter reappeared a couple of minutes later and made a couple of circles around the fire, then (while I was watching but before I could bring my DSLR up to get a picture) dropped the water from its 360 gallon tank onto the fire. I photographed a water drop a couple of minutes later after another round-trip to the lagoon to refill the tank.

N495DF drops water on the DeLaveaga Fire
N495DF drops water on the DeLaveaga Fire

Soon a second helicopter arrived on the scene: a newer Fire Hawk (that looked, according to flight tracking data, to be based out of Hollister). The Fire Hawk took turns with the Super Huey, and seemed to be attacking different sides of the fire: the Fire Hawk dumped its larger, 1000-gallon tank to my left of where the Super Huey was operating. Standing on my deck watching the air attack it was difficult to clearly distinguish between the Super Huey and the Fire Hawk, though the distinctions are clear once I look at the pictures I took at maximum zoom with my DSLR. The one obvious distinguishing characteristic was the Super Huey flew with its snorkel trailing behind it, while the Fire Hawk only dropped its snorkel while hovering over the lagoon to draw up water to fill its tank.

N476DF Calfire Fire Hawk drops water on the DeLaveaga Fire
N476DF Calfire Fire Hawk drops water on the DeLaveaga Fire

I watched the two helicopters circle and drop their water payloads, and after half an hour I saw on Twitter that "forward progress" of the fire had been halted, at around five acres total, though the fire was still burning and still needed attention to keep it under control.

N476DF Calfire Fire Hawk over the DeLaveaga Fire
N476DF Calfire Fire Hawk over the DeLaveaga Fire

While I watched the fire from my desk, the street right in front of my house turned out to have an excellent view of the air attack. I saw multiple cars stopped in front of my house to watch and photograph the fire response in action.

N495DF in the trees over the DeLaveaga Fire
N495DF in the trees over the DeLaveaga Fire

By this point it seemed like the fire was under control and it was unlikely that we'd need to evacuate. The neighborhood immediately below the fire got an evacuation warning from the sheriff via reverse-911 (though the evacuation warning never showed up on Zonehaven, our local source for fire evacuations). I left home to pick up Julian from school (though I took my laptop and camera with me, just in case); once I picked him up and we were driving back home I told him about the wildfire in our neighborhood (though I probably misused the word "exciting" to describe how I felt about the fire near us).

N476DF drops water on the DeLaveaga Fire
N476DF drops water on the DeLaveaga Fire

While I was gone the air units had been diverted to a car fire on highway 17 that set off a small wildfire, but they had returned to the DeLaveaga Fire by the time I got back from school. The smoke had mostly cleared, but I could still smell smoke from my house (Julian said it "smelled like hot dog", which seems reasonable). Julian was not interested in looking at the smoke from the fire, but when I heard the throbbing of an approaching rotary-wing aircraft I summoned him to see the fire helicopter in action, and we arrived on the deck just in time to see the water drop.

I tried to get back to work but I was distracted every time the helicopters flew overhead, so I gave up and sat on the deck and watched the final half-hour of the air attack. The Fire Hawk flew a couple of wide loops around the fire (some close enough to my house that I could feel the thump-thump of the rotors beating the air), then dropped one more load and flew back to Hollister.

N476DF Calfire Fire Hawk circles the DeLaveaga Fire
N476DF Calfire Fire Hawk circles the DeLaveaga Fire

When a fire helicopter shows its belly like that, it's playing; but don't attempt to scratch its belly, because it may bite you.

The Super Huey landed in DeLaveaga Park, at the base of the hill in the valley north of the ridge. (This park includes sports fields with klieg lights that illuminate the fog some nights, casting an eerie glow on the fog.) After a few minutes the Super Huey took off, with its snorkel retracted. It flew to the golf course and landed again, then departed back home to the Alma Helitack base.

N495DF departs the DeLaveaga Fire
N495DF departs the DeLaveaga Fire

I returned to my home office for another hour, once I was confident the fire was under control and I'd no longer be distracted by large machines flying overhead.

It was uncomfortably exciting to have a wildfire close enough to us that I could see the air assault. We learned things about our own emergency planning: we should consider what we should do in a case like this where there's a fire that might threaten us but isn't doing so yet. (This time we got lucky with the weather and the availability of air assets; we might not get so lucky next time.) I'm grateful for Calfire and the firefighters keeping me and my family safe every time there's an emergency like this.

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